THE afternoon we moved in I was outside by the pump, a working artifact from the uncomputered years, when a tall, tanned man in denim cutoffs and a turned-down white hat came by.
''The garbage cans are right over by the woodhouse,'' he said, motioning toward the community parking lot. ''Won't be another pickup till Friday. You missed today's.''
''Thanks,'' I said, ''but so far we just have a couple of orange peels.''
I didn't know that a late-summer exception to my standing policy - No Return to Old Scenes of Young Happiness - was beginning to pay off. A friend and I had just arrived at the cottage we were renting on a wooded, sandy peninsula across the river from my childhood and teen vacation place in upstate New York.
The next afternoon, late for supper, I rounded the corner by our cottage on the run, slamming into our garbage-can friend trotting toward his cottage. As the impact of our formal introduction eased, he said his name was Dick Lombardo.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose? There had been a Lombardo in the old scene - Guy, and his Royal Canadians, their proclaimed ''sweetest music this side of heaven'' drifting nonthreateningly across the water from a wind-up ''vic'' on some cottage porch. On rainy days, that gentle but undeviating Lombardo beat, the wide-vibrato saxes and muted trumpets precisely defining the melody in simple, squared-off phrases, reassured stumbling adolescent feet trying to get the hang of the fox trot. And we always knew that somewhere, in some time zone, the Royal Canadians were playing ''Auld Lang Syne'' at midnight on New Year's Eve.
Guy Lombardo, his band well stocked with brothers, Carmen, Lebert, Victor, had been a kind of extra family presence, albeit a recorded one, in that overwhelmingly family environment. Dick Lombardo was a ''live'' presence and something new in the old mosaic: a career single. Oh, there had been ''old maid'' aunts, spinster cousins, bachelor uncles in the early scene, but they were always part of a family, not independent cottage renters.
The night Dick invited us for dinner, a feat of gourmet delights crafted to perfection in a quintessential perch and sunfish kitchen, gave us our first glimpse of his seeing-eye talent that turned him into a veritable one-man band, or, more aptly, a one-man family of talents: painting, painterly camera shots, music, nurturing relationships with kids, and home-enhancing. With a well-placed pillow or two, a few yards of fabric, pieces of driftwood, and candlelight, he had so befriended that cottage's orphan furniture, maladjusted lamps, and gauche souvenirs that everything and everyone unconditionally belonged.
''I just look at something and see what it can be,'' he explained.
That cottage was a mild prelude to the look-at-what-can-be virtuosity that assailed us, molto vivace, on our visit to his Swiss chalet. Not in Switzerland. Beside a park in his home city.
We became compulsive inventory-takers and questioner-exclaimers.
''That handsome sofa - a $15 couch'' He had antiqued and upholstered it himself, could have sold it for $485. ''This - an old bookcase?'' Made new with oil paint and shellac. ''That is an old iron and brass coal shovel - cleaned up with Coca-Cola'' ''The Christmas candelabra - scrounged from a pile of junk at a gas station''; A bowl of eucalyptus leaves stood on a rosewood baby grand. ''I didn't have a piano till I was 17,'' Dick said.
Nor a piano lesson, ever. The player piano next door took care of that. ''As a little kid I used to sit and watch the keys go up and down, and from then on I could play the piano.'' Well enough, later, to do a solo gig at a Detroit club while working toward his master's in rehabilitation and special education.
The outer and inner walls of the staircase made a gallery for his original paintings: a Madonna and Child, treescapes, cathedrals. Upstairs among a miscellany of small items a set of ancient jail keys evoked rusted locks and forgotten crimes.
And present violence. A number of his years as a special education teacher brought Dick close to the world of barred windows and lockups. Wayward adolescent feet trying to get in step with this Lombardo ''beat'' weren't dancing. They were the feet of children ''doing time'' in a detention home. He taught them English, art, and writing.
''I never read case histories,'' he said. Instead, he collected their poetry and other writings, hoping to publish them.
Added degrees have moved him into college, teaching those subjects his child pupils had sampled first hand: juvenile delinquency, criminology, victimless crimes. But for the younger feet the Dick Lombardo ''beat,'' like Guy's, gentle but definite, goes on (''I still do a lot of counseling, seems kids today aren't too happy'') - the creative looking to see what children, and things, can be.